Writing Rules and Why I’m Rebellious

I have always been a rebellious person.  An ex-boyfriend forbid me to have my hair cut as he wanted me to wear it long… So I opted for the popular style amongst boys at the time and had ‘curtains’ cut in.  My teachers forbid me to wear makeup and denim at school… So I wore jeans and plenty of nail varnish and eye-liner.  Rebelling against my Mum was difficult.  I wanted a black, leather mini-skirt, she bought one for herself to match.  I wanted my nose pierced, she suggested we went together (I chickened out).  I wanted to listen to loud music with loads of swearing in it, she reminded me that my Uncle is founding member of the 70s/80s punk band Solvent Abuse.  I wanted to read more adult books, she handed me her copies of DH Lawrence, Martina Cole, etc. etc.  You get the picture…  So I turned to writing as my outlet.  There are plenty of rules there that need breaking!!

All writers have different rules when it comes to creating a piece of fiction.  But, there are many that seem to stay the same.  Some of these come from those lengthy English lessons at school, and some of them seem to be spread across the internet on newspaper websites, blogs, and social media.  The rules of writing are also a debate that comes up quite frequently at the writer’s group I attend.  So what are these rules?  Well, they vary.  Here are some of the most popular:

  • Never open a story by describing the weather
  • Never use anything other than ‘said’ when describing dialogue
  • Avoid adverbs at all costs
  •  Do not fall into the trap of over-detailed descriptions
  • Avoid cliches like the plague (see what I did there?)
  • Show don’t tell
  • Don’t use unnecessary wording
  • Don’t use the words ‘pretty, very, nice, or just’
  • Never start a sentence with ‘because’ or ‘and’

Some of these I agree with.  Opening a story by describing the weather for instance – been there, done that, didn’t work.  You want to grab the reader’s attention, and telling them it was a bright and sunny day, or a dark and gloomy night, simply isn’t interesting.  I also hate the words ‘pretty, very, nice, and just’ – but sometimes they… well… they just work!

Never use anything other than ‘said’.  Oh how this gets me.  At school we were taught to use anything BUT said, now I’m being told to use only said.  Who’s right?  Nobody.  That’s the answer.  Yes, a lot of the time ‘said’ is all that’s needed, especially if the dialogue is well-written, then the wording and actions of the speaker should be enough.  At the same time, sometimes something more than ‘said’ is needed.  For example, you wouldn’t ‘say’ “that alien mothership is going to kill us all”.  You would exclaim it, or shout it…  And hopefully move out of its way.  The other point of this rule is that sometimes it is better to say nothing.  Continued dialogue doesn’t need ‘he said/she said’ all the way down the page.  YAWN!!  As long as the reader knows who is talking and in what manner, leave it alone.

Avoid adverbs…  Ahhh…  A favourite debate amongst the writer’s group.  Some hate them, some love them.  This could fall into the category of telling not showing, but again, sometimes they are necessary.  I have to admit that I use them less now, but I do still like to see them dotted in and about my chapters.  I think it’s also important to point out that adverbs are used in everyday speech, so if you are in dialogue, or writing in first person, then they are likely to be used more frequently.  How many adverbs did you spot in that paragraph?

Over-detailed descriptions.  Once upon a time, they were a sign of intelligence and were common-place in literary works of art.  Nowadays, they are skipped over and described as tedious.  I love over-detailed descriptions, in moderation.  They help to set the scene.   Do we need to know precisely how tall that character is?  Do we need to know that the sunset was a variety of colours and how they made the character feel?  Probably not.  But on occasion, I do think that they add to a book.  However, once done, it does not need re-doing over and over again.  We do not need to be reminded what colour a character’s eyes are several times in one paragraph for example.

Avoiding cliches can be tricky.  I fall into this trap a lot, and sometimes I do it on purpose.  Again, dialogue may call for it.  You wouldn’t say ‘it floated as though a bubble of air had caught beneath it’.  You may say ‘it floated like a cloud’.  As with all the rules, it depends on the context.  If a cliche is called for, then I would use it.

Show don’t tell – my real downfall.  Adverbs and similes are the best way to tell rather than show.  Look at my cliche example above – a classic example of the difference between showing and telling.  And yet again, I rebel against this rule on a frequent basis.  Yes, I use both adverbs and similies on purpose.  Why?  Because sometimes they are necessary!

Unnecessary wording sort of contradicts a lot of rules.  “Why use ten when you can use one?”  Now there’s something I’ve heard a lot!  But again, look at the cliche example.  One uses several words, the other uses five.  So tell me, which rule should I follow?  Unnecessary wording, cliches, or showing not telling?

And you should never start a sentence with certain words.  Why?  Because it’s not proper English.  Simple.  This used to get me in English lessons.  “Explain yourself correctly Charlotte.”  Fine.  You should never start a sentence with certain words.  Why shouldn’t you start a sentence with certain words.  You should never start a sentence with certain words because it’s not how we were taught to speak.  But you do risk repeating yourself and making your work lengthy and boring.  So I will stick with starting certain sentences with the words ‘and’ or ‘because’, especially where it is called for in dialogue.

Rules are made to be broken.  However, do it sparingly, or at least with a clever twist so that nobody notices.  If the storyline is strong, and you have a good editor, then mistakes can be mended.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Rules and Why I’m Rebellious

  1. Charlotte, this is an excellent article, and GREAT advice to writers both experienced and neophyte. “One rule does not fit all” is a great rule, and the rule that ‘rules are meant to be broken’ is even better. “:)

  2. Sometimes a lengthy description is absolutely necessary, and sometimes it gives the reader time to relax between beheadings. Hard and fast rules are kinda like zero tolerance policies, they often cause more trouble than they are worth.

  3. I’ll never forget the fight I had with my English teacher in high school. She told me I couldn’t start sentences with “and.” I whipped out the book I was reading (can’t remember which–it was one of the classics; I went through a phase, okay?) and pointed out all the times sentences started with “and.”

    That moment of fluster was a sight to behold.

    “Rules” in English are tough, and can take an eternity to learn! But you’re right, sometimes it’s better to break them.

    As for me, I think I’ve shown my teacher how wrong she was; I grew up to be a writer AND editor. And I aim to never be the kind of editor who applies rules without considering the situation. 😉

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